Flint’s not the only one. The water crisis in Newark, New Jersey has been going on for years and bears a lot of similarities to its Michigan counterpart. Both crises are disproportionately affecting Black and lower-income neighborhoods — and in both towns, officials are addressing the problem with bottled water instead of fixing the actual contamination.
The crisis in Newark is now being called an emergency situation. It’s resulted from years of mismanagement, which led to elevated levels of lead in the drinking water supply — since at least 2010. City officials are warning tens of thousands of Newark residents against drinking tap water for fear of lead poisoning. Citizens are calling for Mayor Ras Baraka to step down.
When Parentology reached out to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office, we received this response from Alexandra Altman, Deputy Press Secretary & Communications Strategist: “The DEP and EPA had a productive meeting and we are counting on the EPA as a partner as we move forward to address the situation in the City of Newark.”
Altman continued, “Because discussions with the EPA are ongoing, we will not be commenting on the specifics of yesterday’s meeting, but attached is the letter from Commissioner McCabe to Administrator Wheeler outlining our request which frames the state’s position.” Click here to download the letter.
The Very Real Dangers
Lead exposure is a serious public health concern. Children and infants are particularly vulnerable: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that even low levels of exposure have been linked to “damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells” in children. Lead poisoning in children can also cause lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth and anemia. In some cases, the EPA reports, lead ingestion has even resulted in seizures, coma, and death.
Adults aren’t safe, either. Lead exposure can lead to high blood pressure, hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. In pregnant women, lead ingestion may cause premature births and reduced growth of the fetus.
***EPA Takes Action
In a press release issued this afternoon from the EPA, they delivered the following updates on meetings between that agency, the City of Newark and Catherine McCabe, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).
“The EPA scientists involved are internationally recognized experts in lead in drinking water issues. These scientists have helped Newark and the State develop a robust sampling plan that will provide representative results regarding the occurrence of lead in the Pequonnock service area of Newark’s drinking water system. The city will begin the first round of sampling according to the plan starting today, Friday, August 16th, building on ongoing sampling efforts already underway.“
The statement continues, “The Agency intends to put an additional team of experts on the ground in Newark as early as next week. While there, EPA will continue to guide and advise the City regarding ongoing sampling efforts. The Agency will also acquire samples for analysis by EPA laboratories. These EPA tests will contribute to the Agency’s consultation effort as it assists the City in evaluation of household water filter performance. Finally, EPA will continue our ongoing collaboration and consultation with Newark on its drinking water system.”
Newark’s Response So Far
When the elevated lead levels were discovered, Newark officials responded by turning off water fountains, instead of installing lead-free water lines — or working to clear the contamination.
In 2017, officials found more than 10% of homes in Newark had nearly twice the amount of lead in their drinking water that the EPA considers a hazard. Since 2018, officials have distributed more than 38,000 lead-safe water filters and installed a new corrosion control treatment system — but recent tests have shown that Newark’s lead levels are still over the EPA threshold.
Just this week, the city began distributing bottled water to residents, only to discover the bottles had expired. Officials said the water was still safe to drink but ordered 50,000 new cases of bottled water be distributed.
To get this lifesaving drinking water, Newark families waited in lines for hours in the August heat to get a case. “This is a slap in the face to the residents of the city of Newark,” resident Donna Jackson told ABC7. “As you can see, everybody is standing in line. We are now in panic mode in this city because the feds had to come in to tell us to stop drinking the water.”
“Everyone should be drinking bottled water… [the] filters have failed.” spokesperson Margie Kelly at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tells Parentology. “Safe water should be on every parent’s checklist for back-to-school. A lot of times people don’t know that – that a school’s water isn’t safe. In the Newark situation, 30 schools had fountains shut down in 2016, and then it turned out to be a larger problem.”
**Yet the outcome in a federal lawsuit seeking to supply bottled water to Newark residents in the Wanaque area who are pregnant or have children aged six or younger due to health concerns concluded with no decision from US District Judge Esther Salas. The case was brought forward by the Neward Education Workers Caucus — a group of public educators — and the NRDC due to health concerns about led in Newark’s drinking water.
NRDC Senior Director of Health Erik Olson responded in a statement, “Everyone has a right to safe drinking water. The NEW Caucus and NRDC filed this lawsuit to secure safe drinking water for Newark residents, whose tap water has been contaminated with lead for years. It’s unfortunate that it took legal action for Newark officials to begin to take steps to protect its most vulnerable residents from lead, including pregnant women and children, as lead is unsafe at any level of exposure.
“We eagerly await the court’s decision, but regardless of the outcome, we will keep fighting for safe water for all Newark residents.”
“It’s a right, not a privilege, to have clean, safe water and we are committed to that,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) and former Newark mayor said in a statement. Adding to the outcry was presidential hopeful Cory Booker. On Wednesday he tweeted, “Newark’s water emergency demands our federal government’s immediate attention… it’s shameful that [this crisis] disproportionately hits poor black and brown communities like my own.”
If the Newark water crisis continues, it could result in Flint-level of damage. In Flint, 15 state and local government officials were criminally charged for their roles in the water crisis. Dozens of residents have filed class-action lawsuits against the EPA. The crisis was linked to as many as 20 deaths from waterborne bacteria.
Newark officials are blaming their main water treatment plant’s “less effective” corrosion control system for the contamination. But placing blame won’t help hundreds of thousands of families access clean water, and avoid highly dangerous lead poisoning that will affect adults and children alike for decades to come.
DEVELOPING STORY: Check back to this post or Parentology’s Facebook page for updates.